Friday, January 11, 2008

Hans Kohn on the Birth of the Other: Israel and Hellas

Have you ever wondered why we tend to forget reading the 'older' academic books? I'm re-discovering Hans Kohn's brilliant work on the history of ideas feeding into contemporary nationalism. "The Idea of Nationalism" was published in 1944, a precusor to the another of Kohn's books which I briefly discussed here. In this work, Kohn explains at large the ideas which, together with other factors, facilitated the development of nationalist thought.

Extremely interesting was his discussion of the differences and similarities between the thought of ancient Israelites and Greeks on the question of the nation (in Chapter 2: Israel and Hellas. From Tribalism to Universalism). It is a discussion of how the tribal sentiment - the feeling of belonging to a closely related, face to face group - became elevated with Hebrew and Greek thought to a

"guiding factor of spiritual life, a new consciousness which gave every member of the group the knowledge of a special mission entrusted to it and distinguishing it from other people" (Kohn 1943: 27).

The Hebrew thought - primarily a discussion of the Old Testament - was centered primarily on the relation between Hebrews and God, and the idea of the chosen people. History was central to them, argues Kohn, because history was the will of God. Hebrews were born through the Covenant with God, which separated them from others through the will to obey God's commands.

"The Covenant concluded between God and the people of Israel formed the gateway to their history, a symbolic act of the highest pregnancy, revived three thousand years later as the root of modern nationalism and democracy" (Kohn 1943: 37).

Kohn further explains that this idea of the special mission of the Israelites was being refined through the writing of the Prophets, who can be seen as guardians of an incipient religious democracy against the Kings. It is in this process that the concept of the nation was developed in opposition to the Other, the one who didn't share the burden of the Covenant or the responsibility to fulfill God's desire. The underlying basis of this concept of the nation however was one of common will: the Israelites had a will to accept God's Covenant, they were making a conscious decision to do so.The nation is one of common will, of constant struggle to maintain the difference between Us (the Chosen People) and Them.

The idea of the nation inherits different meanings from the Ancient Greek thought. There the difference between Us, the Greeks, and Them, the Barbarians goes further, by establishing a hierarchy of 'humanness': for the Greeks, the Barbarians were seen as less then human, which would justify any acts towards them. On the other hand, the awareness of being "Greek" had nothing of the national implications it had today, and the Greeks were divided by conflicts and rivalries. Being a Greek had no political implications, as one's loyalties were primarily to the city-state:

"They were conscious of their cultural and racial unity, but they very rarely drew any political conclusions from it." (Kohn 1943: 52)

At the center of the self-awareness processes of Ancient Greeks lied the idea of education and freedom. In contrast, the Barbarian appeared as uneducated, impulse-driven, primordial. The Barbarian wasn't and couldn't be free precisely because of that. With Alexander the Great, Ancient Greek thought became precisely what the Greeks themselves aspired to: the cradle of civilization, of rational thought. The legacy of Ancient Greek thought to nationalism thus consisted of imagining the nation as a cultural space, which is ultimately endowed with a universalistic mission - that of civilizing the world.

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